Donald Trump and The Evangelical Christian Branding
Updated: Aug 10
Last summer while visiting Russia I had the chance to spend time with an American missionary who has lived nearly a quarter century in Eastern Europe. Having spent so long outside the United States he viewed his country and his fellow evangelicals with a perspective shaped by distance and exposure to other cultures. Though conservative politically and theologically he feared that the Trump phenomenon would not end well for Americans who hoped that a Republican President could do something to halt the long term left-ward and secular drift of the United States.
He did not seemed comfortable using commercial terms to characterize spiritual realities but he admitted that there was something which could accurately be called ´The Evangelical Brand´, and he feared that brand would be irreparably damaged by the widespread perceived affiliation of evangelicalism with Mr. Trump´s politics arguing that there is a strong possibility the term 'evangelicalism' would have to be abandoned in the near future. A similar fate degraded the term 'fundamentalism' from a set of distinctive beliefs in the implicit trust in the authority of Scripture to something perceived as threatening dogmatic intolerance. According to my contact, evangelicalism was never meant to be a popular movement, but it was generally thought to be trustworthy even among its critics. This is no longer the case. Now the image of faithfulness is at risk of been viewed by the public as hypocrisy and cynical pragmatism. Because Mr. Trump has embraced policies dear to evangelicals (nothing dearer than his opposition to legalized abortion) however, Mr. Trump personal shortcomings appear to have been discounted.
In the business world, branding is not something that is taken for granted. Large and successful companies experience immense losses if their brand is discredited; therefore, the importance of protecting the brand´s integrity is crucial. In the corporate world, a questionable brand name can signal the demise of the business.
Most people these days perceive evangelicalism as a voting bloc or a wing of the Republican Party which may not be a reality in large metropolitan areas. However, a percentage of Evangelical Christians see their support of President Trump as a means of protecting or enhancing an imperiled agenda, which they view as having been stalled by a post-Christian society devoted to secularism and materialism. In much of U.S. history, Evangelicals have coexisted with political leaders who upheld the nations’ founding values and laws, often rooted in Judeo-Christian principles. However, this scenario has changed drastically for North Americans, given the fact that most have grown up in a modern or post-modern society not necessarily grounded in Christianity. Correctly, writer Paul Rosenberg asks this question: ¨Are Donald Trump's supporters driven by immoral hatred, or simply shaped by moral codes that most liberals or leftist don't understand?¨
Evangelicalism shelters many different traditions and denominations, which share common ground on grace and redemption. A number of Evangelicals appear to have chosen to support Mr. Trump despite what many have described as self-serving and reckless attitudes, trusting that he will support issues and values considered to be at the heart of evangelicalism. Many Evangelicals are willing to give Mr. Trump a passing grade, perhaps considering that they are ´supporting lesser evil for greater good´.
Two issues are at the heart of evangelicalism: Abortion and the Supreme Court. Abortion has been described by some as ´a silent holocaust´ and rightfully so, they advocate for strong government intervention. The Supreme Court is viewed as the ´gate-keeper´ for civility and perceived as increasingly deviating from the rule of law, thus driving society into a path of lawlessness; therefore, Evangelicals feel the need to bring in more conservative courts. Given the best case scenario—that Mr. Trump is capable of providing leadership with regard to these two pivotal issues—after all is said and done, society and the church will still have to struggle with the root cause of these symptoms, which are the result of the divide that exists between humanity´s sinful nature and a redeeming God.
Despite of the fact that Mr. Trump is riding a positive economic cycle, his approval ratings have always been at a historic low. Many people perceive a presidential tenure characterized by self-inflicted scandals, litigations and the persistent threat of impeachment. There seems to be an increasing sense of alarm, given the fact that quite a few of the ´fine and best people´ Mr. Trump promised to bring in to ´clean the swamp´ have departed in disgrace or are allegedly undermining his governance, plus a number of former associates serving prison time while others perilously skating on rather thin ice. These burdens have intensified with journalism increasingly determined on questioning him.
Asserting that the Evangelical movement is losing credibility only because of its support for Mr. Trump may be rather naïve. We Evangelicals have ourselves already done damage to our own brand, our movement, and likely to our principles. For example, the Evangelical megachurch movement is liable for having thousands of followers sitting in their pews as mere spectators of Christian entertainment, rather than engaged Disciples of Christ. The church growth movement is responsible for centering its energy and resources on the growth of ´their church´ rather than the growth of ´The Church´. The theologies of prosperity, liberation, and liberalism have all helped diminish the credibility and purpose of the Evangelical churches. However, Evangelicals in the U.S. have proven to be an active political force that should not be neglected nor ignored, underlining their obligation to attentively select and support political leaders.
The Catholic Church has a history of consorting with selfish political rulers. At many points in the history of the Catholic Church, it chose to co-habit with ruthless and self-serving rulers; the supposed payoff being to preserve its place and influence in society. For instance, during the conquest of the Americas, Spain conveniently developed a partnership with the Catholic Church to the point that both entities could share almost an equal quota of power. In exchange, most Catholics chose to overlook the merciless atrocities committed by the Spanish rulers in their efforts to subdue an entire continent. The long-standing partnerships of the Catholic Church with corrupt, ruthless rulers and other issues regarding moral ethics may well be a main reason why they have not been able to fully restore credibility to their name brand.
The parable of The Good Samaritan may illustrate what Jesus would like us to do. The parable is given to show how we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. Instead of a proactive role in politics, the Evangelicals’ primary role in society is to take care of the wounded neighbor, provide a safe place for restoration, and maintain support throughout his recovery. Jesus asked His disciples to go and spread the message of reconciliation. We would infer that the greater the number of disciples, the greater the influence and benefits to society. Frank Viola, in his book, Reimagining Church, has rightfully pointed out: “… (the organic church) can be genuinely attentive to their world, to their Lord, and to each other.”